While you weren't paying attention, the Christian movie industry has gone Tyler Perry on us and spit out a buttload of movies. In 2014 alone we've seen Left Behind, God's Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, and the wildly underrated Hey You Guys, Let's Jesus This Town Up! And guess what? Some of these movies have done all right at the box office. Noah, for example, did better at the theater than The Edge of Tomorrow did (and yes, we know-a Noah was from the Old Testament, not Jesus-themed). But you get the drift: religious movies are hot! Or are they?
With 83 percent of Americans and 32 percent of the entire planet self-identifying as Christian, you'd think that movies with an overtly pro-God theme would make perpetual bank. That really hasn't been the case. Here's why you won't see a $200-million reboot of Bibleman any time soon.
You all remember, Bibleman, right? RIGHT?
Before we figured out that Mel Gibson is batshit insane, he pulled off something no one thought possible: a commercially successful movie based on the pummeling of Jesus Christ before his crucifixion. Viewers vomited out $600 million worldwide to see a dramatization of the Son of God getting curb-stomped by Romans.
"Bring the kids! Pack some Peeps!"
Since then, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a fairy tale that tells the story of Christ allegorically, is the only Christian movie that's really come close to the The Passion of the Christ's numbers. But that was with six times Passion's budget and a cast that wasn't speaking an archaic language that required subtitles.
And Lion Neeson.
Meanwhile, the newest Left Behind movie, starring Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage, has a 2 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a lot of empty seats in the theaters. The same Christian audience who rushed to watch Kevin Sorbo in God's Not Dead and Greg Kinnear in Heaven Is for Real couldn't be bothered to watch the highest-profile actor in a Christian movie since Max von Sydow played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Why? Maybe because Left Behind gives a fictionalized version of The Rapture, a Biblical event that only evangelical Protestant Christians think is a real thing. Is there a Heaven? Yes, Catholics are on board. Does God exist? Yes, Jews, Muslims, and agnostics can hypothetically hop on that spirit train. Will all the Christians of the world simultaneously disappear while everyone else is left to deal with seven years of hell on Earth before Jesus comes back to do war with the Devil? Mmmmmm, maybe not.
"Eh, it's not like we added midi-chlorians or something."
The second filmmakers stray from the simple message of "God Good/Devil Bad" and dive into down-and-dirty, specific religious messages, audiences aren't having it. In fact, the less specific, the better.
Funny that we should mention Cage, because remember that time he played an angel who listened to a shit-ton of The Goo Goo Dolls? Do the research and you'll discover City of Angels is based on zero Bible verses. Same for It's a Wonderful Life, Angels in the Outfield, The Preacher's Wife, and Michael. The idea of good beings supernaturally helping us out in big broad strokes is so universally easy to digest that we were all for John Travolta wearing a mullet and feathered wings while angeling it up in 1996.
This made over $100 million.
Mainstream audiences are fine with angels and God, just as long as it's the universally liked, generic version of Good Grandpa God, aka Morgan Freeman. Nowhere in Bruce Almighty does God go over how his son Jesus died on a cross as a proxy for the sins of mankind -- that's waaaaay too religiously specific for us. The same holds true for our feelings about the dark side. The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, and The Devil's Advocate may not scream JESUS FLICKS, but they all have the same core message: Satan is real, and he's after us. In almost any scary movie, we're fine with God having our backs against the Devil.
"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of cinematic death, I will fear no over-actor."
There's one odd exception to the Keep It Religiously Simple, Stupid (KIRSS) rule: we don't mind sticking to the Bible version of events if God himself is beating up on humans.
The story of Noah is, at its heart, God doing some genocide on the whole planet. Barely missing the top 10 of the highest-grossest religious movies since 1980 is a feature-length VeggieTales cartoon about Jonah, the guy who got eaten and thrown-up by a God-commandeered whale because he didn't want to tell a whole city God was about to destroy them. Later this year, we'll be treated to Exodus: Gods and Kings, which should tell the story of how God punished the Egyptian pharaoh by killing all the firstborn sons in the country (even the animals!).
And all viewers' attention spans.
Now, contrast those epic Bible stories with the Christian movies that tanked this year. Do we want to see God orchestrate a romance between a nonbeliever and a Christian? Hell, no. How about God bring a family together through their Elvis look-a-like son? Gross, no. Surely we want to watch a movie about God healing the marriage of a Christian singer-songwriter? Fuck to the no. Unless God or the Devil is killing someone, Christian and secular audiences don't give a crap.
And when people don't give a crap, you lose those valuable merchandising opportunities.
Hey -- let's look at some stuff:
That's just a handful of the bigger-budget and/or more famous religious-themed films out there, the directors being Mel "Sugar Tits" Gibson, Darren "Noah Is Actually About the Environment" Aronofsky, Ridley "Agnostic" Scott, M. "Not Christian" Shyamalan, Cecil "B. Stereotyping Jews" DeMille, and Andrew "Narnia Isn't Religious" Adamson. While Prince of Egypt might have involved some religious folk in production, we didn't feel like looking up the committee of producers behind a DreamWorks film that went out of its way to hire an army of religious consultants.
And kept it under two hours, Ridley.
As Christians themselves have recognized, there's something about the director and actors being either non-religious or racist-insane that somehow makes for a more marketable (and better) film. It seems like doubt is a necessary element to movies about religion, and having an outsider perspective works because you can tell a story without worrying about offending your god. In other words, mainstream audiences have a hard time buying overtly religious movies from overtly religious people (unless that person is Gibson, because all bets are off when it comes to him).
Every film we love is about Jesus, we just don't call the lead characters by that name. Instead we use names like Neo, Harry Potter, Superman, or Mr. Interstellar (we didn't read the early reviews). Because while 50 percent of American adults can't bear talking to their kids about religion, they're totally fine when James Cameron does it with a hulking Austrian being lowered into molten metal.
"Well, his initials are J.C."
So chin up, Christians who are about to be pressured by their churches into scheduling big group excursions to see Saving Christmas. You don't have to watch a Hallmark-esque Kirk Cameron movie to find a Jesus story. Just rent Superman or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and thank God that not everyone was blessed with the gift of good filmmaking.
Or fuck it, rent Bibleman!
While we're on the topic, check out Christian Mingle Has a Movie Coming Out, and It Looks Bonkers.